Bob Dylan is a man whose legend belies his status of being alive. Problematic a statement, not least grammatically, I know.
But it’s a rare artist that I feel achieves such status in their own lifetime both at their peak and beyond. To achieve greatness through folklore (with a capital ‘folk’) and you should have been theres whilst still going strong and continuing to tour, no less, is quite the thing.
In fact, as part of our own Mancunian musical you should have been theres, my mother-in-law was indeed there the night that Dylan ‘going electric’ came to an almighty head one fateful night in May 1966 at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, as the notorious heckle Judas rang out…
Not nearly as infamous an occasion but his legend in his own lifetime status allowed me to go and see him in concert at Manchester’s Apollo a few years back. And he’s coming back again. And the point of this preamble is his…accessibility.
Indeed, playwright and filmmaker (and writer and director of Girl From the North Country), Conor McPherson discovered this most surreally when Dylan’s own record company approached him to ask if he’d consider using his music in a theatre show.
In an interview with journalist, Nick Curtis, as featured in the theatre programme, McPherson dismissed this as a) he’d never written a musical and b) didn’t think of ‘Dylan as a musicals musician’.
Not my favourite genre, and as a fan of Dylan’s music, me neither.
But McPherson’s idea to set the play in Dylan’s birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota, in 1934, repositioning them and providing new context, and the fact that Dylan’s management told McPherson…
Bob Dylan has read it, likes it and is happy for (you) to go ahead
…lead to both it and I appearing at The Lowry last night, myself intrigued and curious to see just what a Dylan driven musical looked (and indeed, sounded) like.
It sounded great. The spirit and essence of Dylan’s music was preserved (20 songs, no less, from Sign On the Window through to Forever Young).
The talented company brought it home with fabulous vocals and musicianship, with some multi-talented multi-tasking, going on, with characters showing up on the drums for instance when least expected!
The music lent itself to the period, the geographical backdrop understood, and my fears that the narrative would provide wholly inappropriate and tenuous links to the incoming songs unfounded.
The plot was enough to provide a platform for the songs without becoming too jarring but don’t get me wrong. This was no saccharine narrative purely there for decoration. With themes including mental health, rape, racism and murder to boot, it was certainly holding its own and strong enough to take hold of our attention.
There were inevitable signifiers to what was to come in the songbook, but, hey, they’re songs I liked so I looked forward to them, content in the knowledge that they were on the horizon.
I even got thrown a bone when the opening strains of my favourite Lay Lady Lay got a cameo as an intro to another song.
And as 2 hours (plus interval) drew to a close, it was clear from the standing ovation that the audience of Dylan, musical and good old theatre-lovers had found lots of enjoy, as had I.
Girl From The North Country is at The Lowry upto and including 24 September 2022.
For more details and to buy tickets, visit https://thelowry.com/whats-on/girl-from-the-north-country
Stage photo credits: Johan Persson
Cast and Creatives
- Mrs Neilson: Nichola MacEvilly
- Elias Burke: Ross Carswell
- Nick Laine: Colin Connor
- Joe Scott: Joshua C Jackson
- Reverend Marlowe: Owen Lloyd
- Marianne Laine: Justina Kehinde
- Mr Perry: Teddy Kempner
- Dr Walker: Chris McHallem
- Elizabeth Laine: Frances McNamee
- Gene Laine: Gregor Milne
- Katherine Draper: Frankie Hart
- Mr Burke: Neil Stuart
- Mrs Burke: Rebecca Thornhill
- Ensemble: Graham Kent, Daniel Reid-Walters
- Writer & Director: Conor McPherson
- Music & Lyrics: Bob Dylan
- Scenic & Costume Design: Rae Smith
- Orchestrations, Arrangements & Musical Supervision: Simon Hale
- Additional Arrangements: Simon Hale & Conor McPherson
- Lighting Design: Mark Henderson
- Sound Design: Simon Baker
- Movement Director: Lucy Hind
- Casting: Jessica Ronane CDG
- Band: The Howlin’ Winds with Musical Director/Piano: Andrew Corcoran, Violin and Mandolin: Ruth Elder, Guitars: Felix Stickland and Double Base: Ed McFarlane.